Crewe Train (1926) by Rose Macaulay (another review)

Book review by Sylvia D: This novel has the most wonderful dedication: ‘To the Philistines, The Barbarians, The Unsociables and those who do not care to take any trouble’. This immediately appealed to the rebel in me and although Denham Dobie (named after her mother’s favourite village in Buckinghamshire) is one of the most odd and unlovable main characters I have come across, I relished her difference.

Dobie’s father is a widowed, lazy and unsociable clergyman who, to escape the tedious tasks of administering to a parish, retires on the spurious grounds that ‘he did not care to bury dissenters or to baptize illegitimate infants’. He and Dobie live first in Majorca and then in Andorra in their eagerness to escape people, especially the English:

Here is one of the points about this planet which should be remembered; into every penetrable corner of it and into most of the impenetrable corners, the English will penetrate. They are like that; born invaders. They cannot stay at home… Every train running over the globe is full of them, and the world’s roads, plains and mountains are dense with knapsacked British walkers, burnt brick-red by sun and air.

So Dobie grows up like her father – allowed to roam at will, silent, selfish, idle, sometimes sullen. She has very little education. On her father’s death she is 21 with ‘a long, strong, straight body, broad dark head, narrow dark eyes sunk deep under low black brows, a square jaw and the thrust out underlip of an arguing child’.

Against her will, she is whisked away by her mother’s relations, the Gresham family, and plunged into the self-satisfied, gossiping, highbrow London literary society of the 1920s. She is tidied up and dressed up. The family – all chatterers, linguists and writers – try to teach Dobie the conventions but she has no small talk, no sense of humour, is gauche and blurts out exactly what she thinks in company.

Dobie hates London because there are so many people. She can’t see the logic in their dress code, the requirement for so much cutlery and crockery at meals, the need to see every new play whether it is good or bad, the need to be conversant with so many books, not necessarily reading all the way through but

you must have read a page or two of the book mentioned, or have read or written a review of it, or at least have heard others discussing it, before you can acquit yourself creditably on the subject.

For her the family live ‘The Higher Life’ and she tries desperately to fit in but finds that ‘with these Gresham’s life was like walking on a tightrope’. Convention and conformity pass her by.

Arnold Chapel, a junior partner in Peter Gresham’s publishing company and intent on writing his own novel, is intrigued by Dobie’s ‘difference’ and she by the way he embodies the grace and culture of her new world. They fall in love and marry although against Dobie’s instincts. However, it is her wont to fall in line with suggestions as she is unable to sustain a logical argument and it is easier just to give in as when she accepts she must become a Roman Catholic in order to marry Arnold despite being of the view that people should be allowed to believe what they like. At first they are very happy and Denham resolves that ‘for Arnold she would be a Roman Catholic, learn to talk, read books, be intelligent, sociable and like other people. She would eat off as many plates as he liked . . .’

It doesn’t work. After an idyllic honeymoon, tensions start to arise. They disagree about where to live, over how to decorate their flat, whether they should go out to endless dinner parties, how late after dinner they should stay, Then Arnold’s book is published to mixed reviews. Denham fails to understand the importance of reviews and why Arnold wants to make a favourable impression on the high brows; when she gets pregnant, Arnold desperately wants their baby; when she miscarries, the suspicion is that Denham has lost it deliberately as she didn’t want to be bothered with it.

On holiday in Cornwall with the Greshams, Denham comes across an abandoned cottage with a secret passage leading to a cave and the sea-shore, the existence of which she and Arnold agree to keep to themselves. The couple rent the cottage and there are further disagreements. She wanted it to be their main home, he didn’t. She wants to stay there whatever the weather, he catches a cold and yearns for his creature comforts. Denham then hears Arnold discussing her with her aunt, Evelyn Gresham, and feels betrayed. There are further episodes of perceived betrayal. Arnold returns to London feeling they have absolutely nothing in common. Dobie enjoys Cornwall, riding around on a motor bike discovering places and doing things she likes such as fishing.

Eventually, Dobie, pregnant again, finds she is trapped. Love is her undoing and ‘to make quite sure of you, love sets it seal on you by giving you a child’. She realizes she has to accept the reality of the pregnancy and that the struggle to live her own way is over.

Because she loves Arnold, she would go and live again as he lived, surrounded by people, civilisation and fuss, she would bear his child, tend and rear it, become a wife and a mother instead of a free person, be tangled in a thousand industries and cares, a thousand relationships, instead of soaking in idleness alone.

She returns to London to a compromise from Arnold who suggests they live in Metroland and he commute. Her mother-in-law and her aunt take over, arrange the furniture for her, set up timetables for her and her servants and ensure the neighbours will be sociable. That is where we leave Dobie – back again in the clutches of the Higher Life.

Macaulay has such fun with this comedy of manners poking fun at the literary society she moved in, at the Church, at marriage. She can also be scathing, especially about society gossips who in their own minds create stories about people and their relationships, come to believe them and spread the stories among their friends, thereby threatening reputations and those very relationships.

There is so much of herself in it – the London life she leads, the literary people she knows; she even introduces a character into the story, Rome Garden, who also features in her 1923 novel, Told by an Idiot, and who has affinities with herself and is very different from Dobie Denham:

She was a woman of the world, a known diner out, a good talker, something of a wit, so that her presence was sought by hostesses as that of an amusing bachelor is sought. She had elegance, distinction, brain, a light and cool touch on the topics of her world, a calm, mocking, sceptical detachment, a fastidious taste in letters and persons. She knew her way about as the phrase goes, and could be relied upon to be socially adequate, in spite of a dangerous distaste for fools . . .

This is an enjoyable and funny novel – not laugh out loud funny but the funny that gives rise to an inward chuckle. The narrative flows seamlessly but, although her London literary characters are probably based on people she knew, they are not very convincing. Perhaps their flaws and Dobie’s obtuseness are a little over done as I wearied sometimes of the Gresham family’s pretentiousness and Dobie’s inability to appreciate any aspect of their way of life.

There is uncertainty as to why Macaulay called this novel Crewe Train but my reading of it is that in the music hall song, Oh Mr. Porter, what shall I do?, the silly girl wants to go to Birmingham but is on a train for Crewe. Dobie Denham is on the wrong train, both in the ”train” of the London literary scene and in the “train” of her marriage to Arnold.

Crewe Train first edition
Crewe Train – first edition cover

Having failed to finish her Towers of Trebizond when I was very much younger, I now look forward to reading some more Rose Macaulay.

One thought on “Crewe Train (1926) by Rose Macaulay (another review)

  1. “Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass.”

    ― Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond

    No camel trains to Crewe or Metroland. Good review. Thanks.

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